No Reception: The 2000 Åsta (Norway) Train Collision

Åsta is a village of just 73 people (as of 2022) in southeast Norway, located in Innlandet County 133km/83mi north of Oslo and 48km/30mi east of Lillehammer (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Åsta in Europe.

Åsta lies on the Rørosbanen, a single-track non-electrified branch line connecting Trondheim with the Dovre Line. Opening in sections between 1862 and 1877 the line, originally built in narrow gauge, used to be one of Norway’s main north-south connections until the Dovre Line was completed. Today the line is used for both passenger and freight services, with the latter mostly carrying lumber from the dense forests along parts of the line.

The approximate site of the accident, seen from above in 2022.

Train number 2302 was a southbound passenger service from Trondheim to Hamar consisting of NSB (Norwegian state railway) Class DI 3 number 625 and three four-axle passenger cars. At the time of the accident the train carried 73 passengers along with a driver and a conductor. Introduced in 1957 the DI 3 is a six-axle multipurpose diesel locomotive based on the American EMD F7, a familiarity visible in their distinct “bulldog nose” design. The Di 3 measures 18.9m/62ft in length at a weight of 012 metric tons and can reach speeds of up to 146kph/91mph (later models, early units were limited to 105kph/65mph). Locomotive number 625, which pulled the train involved in the accident, had been delivered in 1962.

NSB Di 3.625, the locomotive pulling the southbound train, photographed half a year before the accident.

The first two passenger cars in the train were second class open space type B3 passenger cars, each one offering 58 seats and weighing 38 metric tons empty. The leading car had been made in 1947 and later been refurbished while the second passenger car was made in 1967. The all-steel passenger cars had been the standard passenger car for 35 years by the time of the accident.

The rearmost passenger car was a type BF11 which had entered service in 1966. It was largely identical with the other two cars, but offered only 32 seats as it also housed a conductor’s office, baggage room and children’s compartment.

A preserved NSB type B3 passenger car, very similar to the ones involved in the accident, photographed in 2010.

Coming the other way was train number 2369, a passenger service provided by a Class 92 multiple unit. At the time of the accident it carried 11 people including the driver and conductor. The NSB Class 92 is a two-car diesel multiple unit consisting of a powered motor car permanently coupled to an unpowered cab car, allowing the trains to operate in either direction without turning around. The two-car unit measures 49.45m/162ft in length at a total empty weight of 92 metric tons, with the motor car contributing 58 metric tons. The configuration involved in the accident has a seating-capacity of 136 people. The motor car is equipped with two Daimler Benz diesel engines, acting as generators with enough power for the electric motors to propel the trains to 140kph/87mph. At the time of the accident motor car 92.14 was leading with cab car 92.84 trailing.

An NSB Class 92 identical with the one involved photographed in 1996.

On the 4th of January 2000 Di 3.625 is departing Trondheim at 7:45am. By the time it reaches Røros station, where the driver is replaced, it has built up a 21 minute delay. The new driver made good progress on catching up to the schedule, reaching Rena station at 1:04pm, 7 minutes behind schedule.

A few kilometers further south NSB 92.14 has reached Rudstad at 1:05pm, coming from Hamar and picking up another passenger. It had already completed a trip to Rena and back, leaving Rena station well before the southbound train’s arrival. The train is now scheduled to hold at Rudstad and wait for the southbound train to pass it, which is scheduled to happen at 1:10pm plus delays. Instead, the driver departs Rudstad at 1:07pm, likely under a red signal. At the time the rail line had no automatic train control system that would stop a train from running a red signal, and there was no onboard radio either. With the southbound train departing Rena at 1:07pm, evidently under a green signal, the trains are now on collision course, just a few kilometers apart.

The two trains collide at full speed at 1:12pm, in a slight curve outside the village of Åsta. The heavy locomotive obliterates the leading car of the oncoming multiple unit before falling on its side, dragging the leading passenger car along. The second car suffers severe damage also but remains near the tracks. Both the multiple unit’s and the oncoming train’s rear cars remain on the tracks with minor collision damage. Fuel and oil from the destroyed multiple unit spray out as the tanks rupture, seconds after the collision a fireball engulfs the center of the wreckage before gradually spreading along the trains. 19 people die in the crash and the ensuing blaze, 67 survive with injuries.

Locals were the first people on site, pulling survivors clear of the flames and rendering first aid as well as checking the surrounding wilderness for further survivors. It takes a few minutes for professional responders to reach the site in meaningful numbers and both battle the flames and help survivors, despite the time passed and the seemingly completely burning wreckage they manage to pull a survivor from the southbound train after the blaze is under control. By 5pm the search for survivors in the scorched and mangled wreckage is called off, with no further survivors expected. The surviving passengers are flown and driven to the surrounding hospitals, with responders now focusing on recovering and identifying the remains of the victims. They’re accompanied by investigators sent to figure out what happened in the first place.

Responders reaching the site of the burning wreckage.

As they start picking the wreckage apart the investigators are immediately met with a problem. The data-logger from the northbound train is a scorched, crushed mess. They still hand it off as evidence, and once cracked open the paper roll recording the train’s speed is actually readable. The Class 92 was travelling at 90kph/56mph as it crashed into the oncoming train, with no indication for the brakes being activated at any point prior to impact.

The data-logger after being recovered from the site.

With no automatic train control in place and nothing recording the signaling-system investigators turn their attention to the dispatch-center at Hamar. The dispatcher on duty at the time of the accident was tasked with both the Rørosbanen were the accident occurred as well as the much busier line between Hamar and Eidsvoll. Watching operations on both lines via a row of computer screens he likely paid more attention to those for the much busier rail line, only occasionally looking over at the screens for the Rørosbanen. This theory was backed up by the equipment on his desk being clearly oriented towards the busier line’s screens.

The dispatcher’s workplace, the four screens on the left are for the Hamar-Eidsvoll-line.

There was no acoustic alarm to notify him when two trains were sent on collision course, only a small popup that appeared on one of the screens at 1:08pm, showing a warning message in red lettering at the bottom of the screen.

A recreation of the warning-message shown to the dispatcher as the trains headed for one another.

The dispatcher reacted to the warning at 1:11pm, a whole three minutes after it showed up. At the time there was no radio-system to contact the trains on the line, the only way for the dispatcher to communicate with the train crews was a cellphone call. The conductors’ phone numbers were meant to be entered into a list for that purpose, but on the day of the accident this had either been forgotten or they had been entered into the wrong list. Both conductors had actually called the dispatcher earlier, but due to the high stress situation he apparently didn’t think to check his call-log at that time. Instead he dug up a randomly noted number and called it, ending up with a completely unrelated train’s conductor on the line. By the time that call ended the crash had occurred.

A (translated) photo from the report, showing the wreckage once the fire was extinguished. Little is left of the multiple unit’s motor car, where one passenger survived the crash and escaped before the fire reached him.

Investigators found damage to the points at the northern end of Rudstad, which matched other cases of trains departing without permission, forcing the points, set for the oncoming train, to shift. This, along with witness accounts that the southbound train departed under a green signal, brought the conclusion that the accident was caused by the northbound train departing under a red signal. Why this happened, if it was a random lapse of attention or a gross act of negligence by a driver trying to avoid delays, could never be determined. It’s a secret the driver took to his grave.

The leading passenger car after being pulled from the wreckage.

While blame for the crash lies on the deceased driver of the northbound train the report also notes that modern safety-technology such as onboard radio and automatic train control could have avoided the accident regardless of the driver’s initial action. The affected stretch of the rail line had actually been meant to be fitted with automatic train control by 1993, but had been delayed a few times and eventually postponed indefinitely after funds were redirected into upgrading Rudstad from a small stop to a proper train station. ATC was eventually rolled out between 2001 and 2003, with onboard radio (GSM-R) not becoming operational before 2004. It was also noted that, until September 1997, it had been standard practice for both the driver and conductor having to confirm a green signal prior to departure, which reduced the likelihood of erroneously seeing a red signal as green.

An aerial look at the wreckage once the fire was extinguished.

The NSB Di 3 didn’t get to see any of these improvements, pulling its last regular train for the NSB in January 2001, almost to the day a year after the accident. Today a small number is still in service with a private rail operator in Norway, along with four units in service in Kosovo and three units which were preserved as rolling museums. The Class 92 saw three refurbishments after the accident before final retirement in 2021. With plans to electrify the Rørosbanen along with the introduction of the European ETCS train control system the days of diesel traction on the line in general may be numbered.

An official memorial to the accident can be found near the site today, listing the names of all 19 victims inside a semi-circular white rock.

The memorial for the accident, photographed in 2009.

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